Tag Archives: Islamic State

Salafi-Jihadists and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Terrorism: Evaluating the Threat

Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons attacks constitute a sizeable portion of the terrorism risk confronting the insurance industry. A CBRN attack is most likely to occur in a commercial business center, potentially generating significant business interruption losses due to evacuation and decontamination, in addition to any property damage or casualties that occur. In the past, there has been a general agreement among leading counter-terrorism experts that the use of a CBRN weapon by a terrorist group is unlikely as these armaments were expensive, difficult to acquire, and complicated to weaponize as well as to deploy. Moreover, with the operational environment being curtailed by national security agencies, it would be a challenge for any group to orchestrate a large CBRN attack, particularly in the West. However, the current instability in the Middle East may have shifted the paradigm of thought about the use of CBRN weapons by a terrorist group. Here are some reasons:

  1. Aspiring Terrorist Groups

The current instability in the Middle East, particularly the conflict in Syria and the ongoing Sunni insurgency in Iraq, has energized the salafi-jihadi groups and has emboldened their supporters to orchestrate large-scale casualty attacks. More harrowing is the fact that salafi-jihadi groups have been linked to several CBRN terrorist attacks. Horrific images and witness accounts have led to claims that local Sunni militants used chemical weapons against Kurdish militants in Syria and security forces in Iraq.


U.N. chemical weapons experts prepare before collecting samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus’ suburb of Zamalka. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

CBRN attack modes appeal more to religious terrorist groups than to other types of terrorist organizations because, while more “secular” terrorist groups might hesitate to kill many civilians for fear of alienating their support network, religious terrorist organizations tend to regard such violence as not only morally justified but expedient for the attainment of their goals.

In Iraq and in Syria, the strongest salafi-jihadi group is the Islamic State, which has an even more virulent view of jihad than their counterpart al-Qaida. Several American counter-terrorism experts have warned that the Islamic State has been working to build the capabilities to execute mass casualty attacks out of their area of operation—a significant departure from the group’s focus on encouraging lone wolf attacks outside their domain.

  1. Access to Financial Resources

To compound the threat, the Islamic State has access to extraordinary levels of funding that make the procurement of supplies to develop CBRN agents a smaller hurdle to overcome. A study done by Reuters in October 2014 estimates that the Islamic State possesses assets of more than of US$2 trillion, with an annual income amounting to US$2.9 billionWhile this is a conservative estimate and much of their financial resources would be allocated to run their organization as well as maintain control of their territory, it still offers them ample funding to have a credible viable CBRN program.

  1. Increased Number of Safe Havens

Operating in weak or failing states can offer such a haven in which terrorist groups can function freely and shelter from authorities seeking to disrupt their activities. Currently, the Islamic State has control of almost 50% of Syria and has seized much of northern Iraq, including the major city of Mosul. The fear is that there are individuals working in the Islamic State-controlled campuses of the University of Mosul or in some CBRN facility in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, to develop such weapons.

  1. Accessibility of a CBRN Arsenal

Despite commendable efforts by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to render Syrian’s CBRN stockpiles obsolete, it is still unclear whether the Assad regime has destroyed their CBRN arsenal. As such, access to CBRN materials in Syria is still a significant concern as there are many potential CBRN sites that could be pilfered by a terrorist group. For example, in April 2013, militants in Aleppo targeted the al-Safira chemical facility, a pivotal production center for Syria’s chemical weapons program.

This problem is not limited to Syria. In Iraq, where security and centralized control is also weak, it was reported in July 2014 that Islamic State fighters were able to seize more than 80 pounds of uranium from the University of Mosul. Although the material was not enriched to the point of constituting a nuclear threat, the radioactive uranium isotopes could have been used to make a crude radiological dispersal device (RDD).

  1. Role Of Foreign Jihadists

The Islamic State’s success in attracting foreigners has been unparalleled, with more than 20,000 foreign individuals joining their group. University educated foreign jihadists potentially provide the Islamic State with a pool of individuals with the requisite scientific expertise to develop and use CBRN weapons. In August 2014, a laptop owned by a Tunisian physics university student fighting with the Islamic State in Syria was discovered to contain a 19-page document on how to develop bubonic plague from infected animals and weaponize it. Many in the counter-terrorism field have concerns that individuals with such a background could be given a CBRN agent and then trained to orchestrate an attack. They might even return to their countries of origin to conduct attacks back in their homeland.

Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State continue to show keen desire to acquire and develop such weapons. Based on anecdotal evidence, there is enough credible information to show that the Islamic State has at least a nascent CBRN program. Fortunately, obtaining a CBRN capable of killing hundreds, much less thousands, is still a significant technical and logistical challenge. Al-qaida in the past has tried unsuccessfully to acquire such weapons, while the counter-terrorism forces globally have devoted significant resources to prevent terrorist groups from making any breakthrough. Current evidence suggests that the salafi-jihadists are still far from such capabilities, and at best can only produce crude CBRN agents that are more suited for smaller attacks. However, the Islamic State, with their sizeable financial resources, their success in recruiting skilled individuals, and the availability of CBRN materials in Iraq and Syria, has increased the probability that they could carry out a successful large CBRN attack. As such, it seems that it is a matter not of “if,” but rather of “when,” a mass CBRN attack could occur.

Redefining the Global Terrorism Threat Landscape

The last six months have witnessed significant developments within the global terrorism landscape. This includes the persistent threat of the Islamic State (IS, sometimes also called ISIS, ISIL or Daesh), the decline in influence of the al Qaida core, the strengthening of affiliated jihadi groups across the globe, and the risk of lone wolf terrorism attacks in the West. What do these developments portend as we approach the second half of the year?


(Source: The U.S. Army Flickr)

The Persistent Threat Of The Islamic State

The Islamic State has emerged as the main vanguard of radical militant Islam due to its significant military successes in Iraq and Syria. Despite suffering several military setbacks earlier this year, the Islamic State still controls territory that covers a third of Iraq and Syria respectively. Moreover, with recent military successes in taking over the Iraqi city of Ramadi and Palmyra, Syria, they are clearly not in a consolidation mode. In order to attract more recruits, the Islamic State will have to show further military successes. Thus, the risk of a terrorist attack to a Sunni dominated state in the Middle East by the Islamic State is likely to increase. The Islamic State has already expanded its geographical footprint by setting up new military fronts in countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Muslim countries that have a security partnership with the United States will be the most vulnerable. The Islamic State will rebuke these nations to demonstrate that an alliance with the United States does not offer peace and security.

Continued Decline of al Qaida Core

The constant pressure by the U.S. on the al Qaida core has weakened its military while its ideological influence has dwindled substantially with the rise of the Islamic State. The very fact that the leaders of the Islamic State had the temerity to defy the orders of al Qaida leader, Ayman Zawahiri, and break away from the group is a strong indication of the organization’s impotency. However, the al Qaida core’s current weakness is not necessarily permanent. In the past, we have witnessed terrorist groups rebound and regain their strength after experiencing substantial losses. For example, terrorist groups such as the FARC in Colombia, ETA in Spain, and Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines were able to resurrect their military operations once they had the time and space to operate. Thus, it is possible that if the al Qaida core leadership were able to find some “operational space,” the group could begin to regain its strength. However, such a revival could be hindered by Zawahiri. As many counter terrorism experts will attest, Zawahiri appears to lack the charisma and larger-than-life presence of his predecessor Osama bin Laden to inspire his followers. In time, a more effective and charismatic leader could emerge in place of Zawahiri. However, this has yet to transpire; with the increasing momentum of Islamic State, it appears that the al Qaida core will continue to flounder.

Affiliated Salafi Jihadi Groups Vying For Recognition

As the al Qaida core contracts, its affiliates have expanded significantly. More than 30 terrorist and extremist groups have expressed support to the al Qaida cause. The most active of the affiliates are Jabhat Nusra (JN), al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaida in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and al Shabab. These groups have contributed to a much higher tempo of terrorist activity, alleviating the level of risk.  As these groups vie for more recognition to get more recruits, they are likely to orchestrate larger scale attacks as a way of raising their own terrorism profile. Attacks at the Westgate shopping center in Kenya in 2013 as well as the more recent Garissa University College attack that killed 147 people by al Shabab are two examples of headline-grabbing attacks meant to rally their followers and garner more recruits.

Lone Wolf Terrorism Attacks In The West

The West will continue to face intermittent small-scale terrorism attacks. The series of armed attacks in Paris, France, Ottawa, Canada, and Sydney, Australia in the last year by local jihadists are clear illustration of this. Neither the Islamic State, the al Qaida core, nor their respective affiliates have demonstrated that they can conduct a major terrorist attack outside their sphere of influence. This lack of ability to extend their reach is evident by the salafi-jihadist movement clamoring for their followers to conduct lone wolf attacks, particularly if they are residing in the West. Lone wolf terrorism operations consist of individuals who work on their own or in very small group thus making it difficult for the authorities to thwart any potential attack. While these plots are much harder to stop, their attacks tend to be much smaller in scope.